"Sometimes I'd be on my knees bawling my eyes out and my sister would walk in and just hold me while I said these affirmations to myself. I didn't believe them at the time, but I wanted to. I thought, even if i don't believe them today, hopefully one day I will."
My first experience with breast cancer was at the age of 26.
I didn't make a big deal out of it and would go as far as to say that I didn't even receive an official diagnosis. A lumpectomy surgery followed and I walked away not grasping the seriousness of the situation at hand. Very loosely, I would refer to it as a cancer scare meanwhile the tumour was not benign; it was a phyllodes tumour that was malignant––also known as cancerous––in my left breast.
What was communicated to me by my consultant wasn't clear, everything was just a blur. I wasn't too sure this was cancer and that there was a real possibility of it coming back; I was left to walk away thinking that I was back to my normal self.
Fast forward to four years later, four months after my 30th birthday, I found a lump in the same breast. This was at the height of the pandemic, lockdown was just about to enter full effect, I was a bit fearful. I hesitated for a while, thinking, if this is cancer, I just don't know what is going to come next. Eventually, I called the hospital.
What was the difference between the first lump you found and the second?
The difference this time around was that I was going to lose my left breast. That sent shockwaves through my system, knowing that there was no other option than to have the mastectomy.
After a few weeks of tests, a biopsy and an ultrasound scan, I was given the results and they gave me the news straight away that I would need to have a mastectomy. I was completely broken and inconsolable. I broke down right there in the consultation room in utter disbelief, finding it hard to accept the news. I tried to get out of it.
I'm single, unmarried, with no children of my own yet. How am I about to lose my left breast? There's got to be another way. If chemotherapy was an option, I would have taken it rather than losing my breast.
What was the hardest part of the journey?
The hardest part was watching the tumour grow. Each month, during my period, the pain became the most burdensome, I couldn't bear it. As a result of this, the doctors were trying to figure out if the tumour was hormonal.
I tried to stay active, going for the occasional jog and working out in the gym. I was on a crazy amount of non-toxic vitamins that could probably put the tumour into regression but nothing to our naked eyes seemed to work––but I genuinely believed that If I wasn't doing these things, somehow, these things contributed to the stemming of the tumour.
At any point did you genuinely think that this might be it? I'm not making it out of this?
Yes, I didn't think that I'd ever been happy or healthy again or that I'd ever genuinely smile again. I anticipated that I was going to be sad and miserable for a long time. Apart from when I was in excruciating pain, I felt like I really couldn't express my sadness because I was constantly told to stay positive. I was scared to be down because I felt like that was going to cause the tumour to grow even more and possibly spread. It was crazy.
There's a whole lot I was, and still am, navigating through but I'm understanding now that joy and pain can both coexist; even though things may not be perfect, I can still choose to be happy.
How was your faith affected during that period?
My support system kept God alive in me because I genuinely couldn't pray. Many days, I didn't want to pray. I didn't want to speak to God. I just didn't know how to communicate what I was feeling or how I was feeling to him. I couldn't understand why he was letting me go through all of that, at such a young age. There's so much that I am aspiring to do and become. I couldn't use the pandemic to be productive because all I was doing was fighting for my life. I was very disheartened, hurt by the situation and, I blamed myself.
Why did you blame yourself?
I kept taking myself back to past trauma, a time where I was socially drinking, more than usual, sad and depressed. I'd think maybe it all started then and that I brought cancer upon myself. That's where beating myself up came into play.
Then I thought if I could bring sickness upon myself then surely, it would be my responsibility to heal myself. I was brutal and relentless in my journey of trying to self-heal and doing that holistically.
In retrospect, are you happy you took such a hard approach on yourself?
Yes, I am. Not only did it challenge me mentally but I realised I could do things that I wouldn't dare do or even attempt. It drove me into a level of discipline that I never thought I could live out; I lost so much weight, even though that wasn't the plan or the goal, I did it effortlessly.
Today, I'm learning new ways to love my body and how I look. That wasn't the case after the surgery. I'd ask myself, who's going to love me with only one breast? Men want the full package and I felt like I didn't have that, so for me, dating wasn't on the table.
Now, I can say that I am complete despite having one breast left.
Where did you draw your strength from?
Affirmations became my new thing. I would say my affirmations in front of the mirror daily. At times I would be on my knees bawling my eyes out and my sister would walk in and just hold me while I said these affirmations to myself. I didn't believe them at the time, because my situation wouldn't allow me to, but I wanted to. I thought, even if I don't believe them today, hopefully, one day I will. And now that's become my reality.
If I had to choose a favourite affirmation, it would be between "I'm learning to love the sound of my feet, walking towards what is meant for me" or "I am complete".
Talk to me about the photoshoot. Who's vision was it?
I wanted to choose joy and celebrate my choice––thanks to my team, we created something special. Despite everything I was doing, the tumour had grown significantly and, the mastectomy was no longer a choice. I wanted to capture the last day before the surgery, as I was, and decided, if I have to lose my breast, then I'm not going out sad.
It wasn't something that was planned, I just knew I wanted to do this thing and I needed to do it before my surgery. It just so happened that everyone was able to come together the day before my surgery. My sister, HairweatherUK, did my hair, my good friend, Lake Sanu, did my make up, and I had done one big shop from Pretty Little Thing with the shoot in mind. Lake Sanu was able to get a female photographer, Jordan Amy, who she'd worked with and knew––this made me feel so comfortable.
It was fitting for it to be the day before because I felt loved seeing my sister and my friends go out for me like that. I thought that even despite choosing joy, it was going to be a sad day because I'd been sad for so long. All I felt was love, support and so much joy. With everything going on, I didn't even realise how much weight I'd lost since my second diagnosis, five months earlier, but I was looking really good.
How do you feel when you look at those pictures now?
I feel a sense of pride that I did that.
Like who does that?
A day before my mastectomy, or the day before your chemo treatment, you decide to get up, get your wig laid, your make-up done, change outfits and stand in front of a camera to take pictures. I think I'm mad sometimes, because who does that?
I was amazed, but I'm glad that I did it.
I told myself "I want to capture Toye as she is now." And then post-surgery, I will recreate that moment.
How has the experience altered your perspective on life and the future?
One thing I don't hesitate to do now is to enjoy my life. I think it's important to be present in every moment you find yourself in, even if that moment is pain. I've learnt that it's okay to feel everything. Feel the pain, because, after it comes joy. It is always like a rebirthing that takes you to a new level of joy you've never experienced before. That's where I am now, in a happy place that I could have never imagined. Even when I feel depressed, or suicidal and I'm mad at God, I'm present in those moments too. It's important to be okay with even those feelings if that's genuinely how you feel.
You started a go-fund-me recently. Why?
In essence, what I hope to do is build a community and a support group for women, that feels close to you regardless of where you are in the world. You could be in Manchester and I could be in East London, but you don't feel alone because you know I'm there. I went through my battle alone because I didn't know anyone else with cancer that I could speak to. I did have one friend I'd made, but she passed away in the process of fighting cancer, and that was hard on me. I feel like it's so important to have a community, especially within African culture, because we don't always talk about these things but we need to.